by Sheila Leverson
How shall I describe George? He is warm and wonderful, charming but not too overbearing, with a beautiful bass voice that is not to be outdone by the singing sostenuto of his tenor and treble. He was born in New York City around 1910 or 1912 — no one knows precisely when. At about the time the Titanic was sinking and the Girl Scouts were forming, the George Steck Company produced my George in what was the golden era of the American piano. (Thomas Edison owned a George Steck, on which his wife and daughters all played.)
In truth, most pianos of George’s generation are at present in a state of degeneration. But my George has been the lucky recipient of loving care from another great gentleman, and as such has many years of useful and happy life ahead of him. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
My history with piano commenced when I began taking lessons at age four with Mrs. Morin, the elderly mother of our small-town veterinarian. When she felt she had nothing further to teach me, I continued at our local Fine Arts Center, staffed by University of Illinois graduate students and professors. After high school I pursued studies in piano performance and pedagogy at both Mississippi University for Women and the University of Southern Colorado, where I studied with artist-in-residence Frank Cedrone. By that time I was an Air Force pilot’s wife with three small children, and when we moved to Spain, my attempts to become anything but an amateur pianist ended. Since then I have not had the time or the circumstances necessary to enable me to get back into practice. If I had a piano, I had no time. If I had time, I had no piano, or other of life’s commitments got in the way. Five years ago, when my second husband, Brian, and I got together, we agreed that the house was too small for my piano. So I sent it gladly to my sister, looking forward to the day when my young niece learns to play it. At times I regretted this move, but I was working full time and there was no room. I knew I had made the right decision.
A couple of years ago I joined a knitting forum at the website Ravelry, a group of people who set my life on a different path. One of these was a gentleman — I shall call him “M” — of such musical talent that I can only hope to pianistically achieve in a month what he can do in a day. Very sadly, this man was faced with a crisis in his life; he was losing his best friend, his wife, to lung cancer. Many of us cooperated to create an intricate and giant afghan for this dear friend; it was such a tiny thing to do in the bigger scheme of things, yet we wanted so much to do something to be of comfort. We tried to share our friend’s journey as best we could, but it was such a load for him to shoulder; we cried with him and ached with him, felt every bubble of hope and every setback — not as he did, certainly, but as an echo of the journey he had to endure. After some time, his dear one passed away, and he was inconsolable.
When you are in a house alone, devastated with grief and pain, lonely and fragile, a piano is a lovely thing, maybe even the only thing that can speak to you. My friend slowly began to return to his music and the piano; through playing, he could express his feelings — anger, grief, torment, sadness. He acquired lovely pianos that reflected his own passion for music, and at the same time made friends in the music world near his home town. Piano is what has enabled him to endure the last few months. Music — the actual living vibrations of strings causing soundboards to vibrate in harmony with one’s own physical presence — is an amazing therapy.
Then, one day in January of this year, my world changed: I discovered that I had breast cancer. Though it was nowhere near the magnitude of Stage IV lung cancer (mine was Stage I), I was faced with my own mortality for the first time — and not just my mortality, but that of everyone I love. I began to distrust outward signs of health, to worry that people were unknowingly walking around ridden with cancer. M was right there for me, offering me support and encouragement, cursing cancer for the horror it is, sharing his own experiences in an effort to ease my mind. My diagnosis was sobering, and it put M’s experience into a different perspective for me.
As I progressed through surgery and understood that I would need to swim the waters of chemotherapy as well as radiation, I was a bit desperate to find a way to make it through. Luckily, I was able to get short-term disability leave, as trying to do a good job for my employer while experiencing the fatigue and side effects, a suppressed immune system, and other challenges of treatment did not seem a recipe for success. But while on leave I could do only so much knitting and sleeping. I began to think about a piano.
It seemed to me that I could practice technique — fairly mindless exercises designed to strengthen and quicken fingers — with only half a brain, and that as I got better between cycles of chemotherapy, I could practice actual pieces. By the time my treatment ended, I could be in practice; therefore, when I returned to work, I could practice less and still be in playing condition. I liked the way that sounded.
I told M of my idea. He was more than thrilled, and extremely supportive. Brian, of course, was very supportive as well, and he and I came up with a budget for a vertical piano. I had in mind a used Kawai 52″ upright. I don’t particularly like the sound of Asian pianos, but I prefer the Kawai over the Yamaha, and they are good values. But all the while, M was reminding me why grand pianos are far preferable to uprights, and I was educating Brian in turn. After I had played all the pianos within our budget that were available in the Seattle area — literally hundreds — and found them wanting, I was disheartened and uncertain that my plan would work at all. Brian, in the meantime, had come to the conclusion that we needed a grand — and, astonishingly, we came up with a place to put it!
The problem was that I really wanted a beautiful-sounding grand piano, and I had only about one-quarter of the money it would take to buy one, should I even find one. It seemed impossible.
Meanwhile, M contacted his musical connections, who in turn recommended that we contact a gentleman named Delwin D. Fandrich, who lives a bit south of us, in Olympia, Washington. As it turns out, Del is renowned for his work designing and rebuilding pianos, having been head of R&D at the Baldwin Piano & Organ Company, designed two grand pianos for the Walter Piano Company, and consulted with the Korean piano manufacturer Young Chang, among much other work. Using his brother Darrell’s action, Del designed and built the Fandrich U-122 piano, which was a huge success and the subject of an episode of FutureWatch. He completely edited and republished Piano Tone Building, a work originally published in 1919. Del is also the acoustic piano consultant to Larry Fine, author of The Piano Book, a must-have reference for anyone interested in buying a piano. I was impressed, and more than a little afraid that this was too much talent for me!
Curious as to whether Del could help me find a piano that had already been rebuilt (I didn’t have time to wait for one to be rebuilt!), I called and spoke with his wonderful wife, Barbara, a freelance editor and Larry Fine’s advertising director. Barbara and I found it so easy to be friends, and we began to talk about the George Steck piano, with whom I had decided to be on a first-name basis as soon as I heard his name.
Del and Barbara had bought George 40 years before, when they were first married. After about 20 years, Del rebuilt George, replacing his soundboard, improving parts of the design, and bringing him up to a level that is astonishing for such an old piano. Later, Del did extensive work on George’s action, which had been a bit stiff but now feels wonderful.
In the most blinding rainstorm imaginable, Brian and I drove down to the Fandriches’ warehouse in Centralia — about a two-hour drive — to meet George, a beautiful rosewood 6′ grand with an “art case” that, while probably not appealing to a modern aesthetic, is enchanting. I fell in love with him right away. There were a couple of other grands that Del, who is every bit as wonderful and charming as his wife, had set up for me to try, but there was no comparison. George is a very wide piano — the back part, beyond the keyboard, is wider than is normal in modern pianos, and allows for marvelous bass harmonics. George’s rich, mellow sound called to me.
Del and Barbara had moved, and no longer had room for George, and so were willing to let him go for about half of what he should have brought. This was an amazing opportunity, but our budget was still short, and without a full paycheck coming in, it was not a good decision to make. But dear M would hear nothing but that we allow him to extend a gesture of generosity typical of his heart and spirit, and more than matched our funds so that George could be ours. I know that he understands the cathartic and therapeutic effect of music, and I hope he understands the depth of my gratitude for this gift, this part of him that is made up of so many things — love of music, compassion, his own journey through grief.
On the way home that day, we saw the most beautiful full rainbow I have ever seen.
George now sits grandly atop the glass floor in the atrium — it looks as if it were built for him — and I am getting acquainted with him through Chopin’s Nocturnes. M and I talk frequently about music and pianos and composers. I am in heaven.
Sheila Leverson has been a software programming professional in the Seattle area for the last 20 years, and currently works for Expedia.com as a data developer. To her love of piano she adds an addiction to fiber arts, focusing on hand-knitting, hand-weaving, and quilting. Her blog, Material Thoughts, can be found at materialthoughts.wordpress.com. Sheila and her husband, Brian, share their home with two cats, two dogs, and four koi; their empty nest once held five children, all now fully flown.